All Sizzle 

Fleming's doesn't quite make the grade

So ear-to-ear and exuberant was our teenage server's smile as he advanced toward our table at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, it eclipsed all other things. The restaurant's unremittingly tawny-toned ambiance -- all that cherry wood, leather upholstery and amber-hued lighting -- fell away. For a moment we lost interest in the rest of the waitstaff -- what seemed like fifteen dozen white-shirted worker bees, some of them dead ringers for One Tree Hill cast members, engaged in a constant, compelling, swarming choreography. Had there been any food on our table (we were between courses at the time), we'd probably have paid it no heed either.

Though his tray appeared empty, this waiter -- only third or so in command of our table, on par with the boy carrying the water pitcher -- approached with purpose, as if he had something profound to say, and something really nice at that.

"I've brought you chilled forks for your salad course," he proclaimed. From the proud way he said it, it sounded as though not everybody at Fleming's gets chilled salad forks. Come to think of it, I hadn't received one during a prior visit. Perhaps this was a personal flourish of his, and damned if I wasn't proud of him too. It was a nice effort on his part -- when I was his age and waiting tables at Forest Hills Country Club, I sure wasn't laying down chilled salad forks for my customers.

As he arranged the flatware at our places, though, I realized something: One of us had ordered the warmed spinach and mushroom salad.

That's the way it seems to go at Fleming's, the three-month-old, 31st satellite of an upscale, national chain operated by Outback, Inc. Much is meant to impress -- to bowl over, to blow away -- but too often it's undermined by well-intentioned but inexpert service and showy but disheartening food.

Fleming's stakes its reputation -- and its very name -- on its steaks and wines. In both categories, it seems as if the house believes size matters most. The wine selection encompasses 180 wines (heavy on American varietals, less than half priced below $40), rendering it diverse by default. But it's hard to be astonished by such a collection, knowing it's the product of corporate muscle. Some wine lists read like curated collections of art; this one is a stockpile. (Want to be wowed? The 30-page, handpicked list at Riddle's Penultimate Café and Wine Bar, a mere shack in the shadow of a behemoth like Fleming's, is special.) The steaks -- an 8-ounce and a 12-ounce filet mignon, a 16-ounce and 22-ounce rib eye and a 16-ounce and 20-ounce strip -- deliver a week's worth of protein in one serving. (The smaller strip steak, reminiscent of a cinderblock, prompted me to ask a server if I'd been given the bigger portion by mistake.) Touted as prime, wet-aged cuts, they're broiled at a singeing 1,600 degrees, which produces a well-charred exterior and a fleshy, pink inside. And they're good. But at $30 or more per hunk (sides not included), presented on a plain white plate with nary a sprig of parsley to dress them up, I'm looking to be transported into paroxysms of gustatory ecstasy. I want my eyes to roll back in my head. I want to emit lower-primate moans of contentment.

I didn't.

That may have something to do with the wet-aging. Dry-aged beef acquires its character sitting in an arid cooler for a few weeks. Wet-aged beef does time (at Fleming's, three or four weeks) in a Cryovac (i.e., a plastic bag). Both processes break down the meat's fibers, tenderizing it, but dry-aging results in more concentrated flavor -- and also moisture loss, which means reduced weight. Wet-aging is more economical, and more common.

Why Fleming's would boast about serving wet-aged beef is beyond me. Maybe they think diners won't know the difference and will be impressed by the sound of it. In a sense, that's in keeping with the whole motif. The trappings are all high-end, but they're aimed at the middle of the market. Kind of like the P.F. Chang's of steakhouses.

But before you even get to the beef, you might have to weather any number of underwhelming moments. Dinner at Fleming's commences with a basket of crostini and crudités (a few celery stalks and some radishes) and the world's heaviest menu, a massive object akin to an encyclopedia volume, or Moses coming down from the mountain. On the side comes a ramekin of Champagne-infused Brie (rather salty), a second ramekin of cabernet-infused goat cheese (inexplicably mild, quite close to cream cheese) and a second upholstered tome, the 80-bottle reserve wine list (as distinct from the 100-bottle list incorporated into the main menu, each entry of which is available by the glass -- admittedly a plus on the side of mass enterprise). As if this weren't homework enough, the headwaiter then dutifully issues an oral exposition noting how steaks are prepared (listen for the "wet-aged" plug), how big portions are, the different permutations in which wine can be ordered and served, etc. (These spiels are becoming a trend, by the way, and one that I find ostentatious and annoying. Aren't menus supposed to be self-explanatory, like maps?)

Typical of a steakhouse, dishes here tend to be oversize and macho. But they hurt for finesse. Extra-large rings of calamari were unpleasantly rubbery, quenched by a sweet chile sauce that tasted like sweet-and-sour; in fact, heaped on a bed of crisp rice noodles, the entire appetizer came off a lot like Chinese takeout. A stuffed artichoke, quartered, resembled medieval hunting spears yet (bad pun alert!) didn't get its point across: Are you supposed to pick these up with your hands? Use your knife and fork? Eat the leaves whole? Eat the lemon slices atop the stuffing? And do I really want to dip any of this into a cup of lemon aioli? In any case, the flavor was unremarkable -- just dry, unwieldy artichoke leaves and a few spoonfuls of bland stuffing. And if your waiter tries to warn you off a seared ahi tuna appetizer because "it's peppery," it pays to listen. This rendition singed my tongue so badly, by the end of the first course I was literally afraid of it.

There are a handful of very good appetizers and salads -- fantastic both in portion size and flavor. A bloody mary shrimp cocktail soaks a sextet of delicious jumbo shrimp in a piquant, gazpacho-meets-salsa-meets-cocktail-sauce. On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, lump crab cakes deliver luscious morsels of mild unbreaded crab meat buttressed by gobs of mayonnaise. Curiously, they're labeled "crispy" on the menu -- but no need to argue semantics with a crab cake this good. Similar seafood-and-mayo harmony awaits in the seafood stack salad, prepared with the addition of lobster, shrimp and scallops. The best salad on the menu is also the simplest: "The Wedge," an old-school section of iceberg lettuce colorfully studded with big fat chunks of tomato, red onion and blue cheese and drenched in a smoky blue-cheese dressing. Loaded with crunch and heft, the Wedge is everything a steakhouse salad should be: vigorous and manly, but poised.

Fleming's side dishes -- served à la carte and family-style -- also waver in quality. Creamed corn, topped gratin-style with Parmesan and Gruyère, is so creamy and hearty that it would be easily mistaken for homemade macaroni and cheese. But a twice-baked potato had to be sent back twice, and even then we finally had to abandon all hope for it: The innards were rock-hard, as if the heat never reached them during baking, and its feeble skin (usually the best part) was neglected. The roasted vegetable plate was another full-on dud, a meager arrangement of limp, wan-colored asparagus, more stuffed artichoke, a sweet potato like one you'd nuke at home and a baffling pile of roasted red and yellow peppers (who eats roasted peppers straight-up?). For $17.95, no less.

Receiving that chilled salad fork was not the only glitch in Fleming's service. There were also the five (five!) black-clad hostesses positioned shoulder to shoulder behind the reservations podium, looking straight out of the It's Just Lunch! dating service ad. One of them told our party our table wasn't yet ready; none of them offered to take our coats or even gestured us toward the coat room right behind them. Then there was the headwaiter on a subsequent visit who had apparently checked the reservation book beforehand and proffered an introductory handshake by name to the corresponding male at our table; this same waiter later forgot to tell us the kitchen was out of onion rings until the entire main course had been set down and we asked about them. The handshake was cute, but like much of what's being offered at Fleming's, it wound up an empty gesture.

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